One Simple Change: Eat a Balanced Diet

Welcome to Week 19 of One Simple Change!

Long before I began my One Simple Change series, I had planned to do a post about what I believe constitutes a healthy diet. I asked readers “how do you define healthy eating?” well over a year ago, but somehow I never followed up with a post about what healthy eating means to me.

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you likely know that I consider myself a “flexitarian” and that my philosophy with regards to healthy eating focuses on “balance”; I personally eat just about everything…everything that qualifies as real food, that is (I do not eat packaged foods)…and I do so in moderation.

You should know, however, that I have definitely “been there, done that” when it comes to diets, and that some of the eating plans I once followed were about as far from balanced as you can get. In my teens, being healthy wasn’t my goal: being skinny was. I spent a few years eating an extremely low fat diet (I ate virtually no fat at all) because I thought this would help me lose weight (never mind that I didn’t really have much weight to lose). This completely screwed up my body (and my mind, too: I became very depressed). Then, while I was trying to get my health straightened out, I had to be on a different kind of restricted diet aimed at the eradication of food allergies for a year.

After that- throughout my twenties- I was constantly searching for a way to eat that would really “work” for me. At that point I did want to be healthy, but I remained very concerned with being thin. I tried being a vegetarian and then vegan. I tried detoxing and juice fasting. I also tried being low-carb, sugar-free, dairy-free, grain-free, and more at one time or another.

It wasn’t until I got pregnant with my first child that I stopped looking for “the be all end all way to eat that would allow me to get and stay skinny” and shifted my focus to eating without any agenda other than supporting my health and learning how to eat without needing to define foods as “good” or “bad”. In the years since- almost 15 of them now- I’ve continued to steer clear of any specific dietary philosophy other than eating whole foods: my life is so much more enjoyable as a result.

{While I have been deeply inspired by The Weston Price Foundation, I don’t follow all of their recommendations to the letter, and I am just fine with that. It’s really important to me to not obsess/get anxious over everything thing I eat because I wasted too many years doing just that.}

I eat food that makes me feel satisfied and that tastes good. I only eat when I am hungry and I stop when I am full. I wake up each day feeling good mentally and physically. I don’t have food cravings. I savor every bite of every meal. I am happy with my weight: it’s been the same for years. I probably weigh myself less than once a month, though.

The way I’ve been able to achieve everything above is to eat a “balanced” diet.

You will find my balanced diet guidelines below. They are based on my naturopathic nutrition education, my experiences counseling patients about “how to eat healthy”, my own years of holistic nutrition research, and my personal experiences, but you’ll notice that they’re pretty loose. And maybe pretty obvious.

I hope you will find them helpful, but please know these are just guidelines…suggestions…and they might not work for you. It’s not “my way or the highway”, and I am not telling you how much of any one thing to eat. We are all individuals with different metabolic needs! You may have a lactose intolerance, celiac disease, or an egg allergy. You may be a lifelong vegetarian or you might really love eating paleo. Please know that I respect you and your choices 100%, and if you’ve found what works for you, then I think that’s fantastic.

But if you have not found what works for you, then might I suggest letting go of preconceived notions that you must find and follow a certain diet or other eating strategy? Letting go of this stuff is what has worked for me, and maybe it will work for you, too :)

My Balanced Diet Guidelines

*Eat your veggies

Eat lots of veggies…eat unlimited amounts of those that are non-starchy. There is a huge variety of vegetables to choose from, and ideally you would eat some raw, some cooked, and some that have been cultured. Make sure to include dark green, leafy vegetables such as kale, chard, mustard greens, collard greens, bok choy and/or spinach in your diet; these are high in minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and iron. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always heard it’s best not to eat large amounts of these greens raw. I know this point has not been well recieved by my raw foodie/green smoothie afficianado friends, so I am doing further research to figure out whether that’s something we should be worrying about or not.

A great way to increase your veggie consumption is by juicing; fresh juice is great for the vitamins, minerals, and enzymes it contains. If you don’t have a juicer, you can use a Blendtec, Vita-mix, or other high speed blender to make a blended juice. The flavor is not as delicate as a juice made in a true juicer, but the fiber is left intact and this is desirable in its own right.

Buy organic vegetables whenever possible and grow your own if that’s in the cards. If you buy non-organic, use a produce wash to remove undesirable chemical residues.

*Eat your fruit

Fruits are a healthy source of carbohydrates and can satisfy a sweet tooth- berries in particular are a wonderful source of nutrients. Try not to overeat the very sweet fruits, such as bananas, as they are high in carbohydrates; eating too many carbs (even these “good carbs”) can lead to weight gain in some individuals.

Buy organic and/or grow your own whenever possible; use a produce wash to clean conventionally-grown fruit.

*Be thoughtful about grains

Whole grains are a good source of fiber and B-vitamins, but gluten-containing grains can be problematic for some people. Experiment with all kinds of grains including the non-gluten grains such as brown rice, millet, and quinoa (not technically a grain, but it cooks like one) to figure out which ones you like, and which ones work for your body. Indulge in potatoes and sweet potatoes as a grain alternative, if you find they don’t really work for you. Serve grains or potatoes with a small amount of organic butter and/or cultured cream: these fats help with the assimilation of fat-soluble nutrients.

Bread can be tricky. I mentioned in a recent post that I got into trouble years ago by eating way to much of it. All-natural breads, preferably sourdough, as well as whole grain breads should be fine for most people in moderation (unless you need to avoid gluten-containing grains completely: these include wheat, spelt, rye, oats, and barley). If you find bread (or any other food, for that matter) to be addictive, I would avoid it. Also: minimize or avoid foods made with white flour (including pasta). I personally eat white pasta once a week or less.

*Pay attention to protein

Protein is important in the diet. I personally don’t feel right (my blood sugar gets wacky) when I don’t eat some form of protein with most meals. Cold water fish such as salmon, halibut, and sardines are excellent as they contain important omega-3 fatty acids; shellfish is a very good source of vitamins A and D. Look for wild, not farmed, fish. High mercury concentration of fish is a concern, but most experts agree the benefits of eating fish outweigh the negatives of the mercury content (here’s more info about How to choose the healthiest fish).

Chicken, turkey, beef, pork and other meats are best when pastured/grass-fed. Or choose wild game as these meats contain less fat, more CLA (conjugated linoleic acid- a fatty acid with anti-cancer and body fat reducing properties), and more healthy omega-3 fats than grain-fed beef. Vitamin and antioxidants are also higher for meat (as well as milk and eggs) from grass-fed/pastured animals. Keep in mind that it is not healthy to eat the burned fat of meats (the HAs/Heterocyclic Amines that are created may be carcinogenic); cooking meats for longer at lower temperatures and/or eating them on the rare side is better (and if you are grilling, make sure to use a marinade as this cuts down on the HAs). Seek out a local butcher who offers grass-fed meats or look for a local grass-fed farm that offers direct purchasing.

More good sources of protein (appropriate for carnivores and vegetarians) include organic, free-range eggs and plant sources of protein such as nuts and seeds (including quinoa), and all legumes. Soy products are best when they are eaten in fermented form (i.e. choose tempeh over tofu, if possible). Dairy products provide protein, too, and are fine as long as you are not allergic to them.

*Choose healthy dairy

Dairy products are good sources of protein and calcium and and good for you as long as you are not sensitive to dairy. Look for raw unprocessed cheeses, plain whole milk yogurt (or make your own yogurt), and raw milk, if you can find it. Some people do not tolerate dairy well and may need to avoid it, though, even in raw form.

*Make friends with healthy fats

Evaluate the fats that you eat and make sure you are eating only high quality all-natural fats. Experiment with coconut oil: it is an excellent healthy cooking oil. The best other fats to use are olive oil and organic butter. Organic butter, believe it or not, contains fat-soluble vitamins and minerals. Avocado is also a healthy fat. Do not limit consumption of good fats as they are vital to good health, but do limit consumption of processed vegetable oils (check labels!) and never eat hydrogenated fats (trans-fats). I devoted two One Simple Change posts to healthy fats…you can check them out here and here.

*Snack smart, and limit sweets

Snacking is encouraged, provided you snack on the right foods, not on “junk”. Limiting sweets means eating only small amounts (or not eating at all) things like muffins, cakes, donuts, cookies, pies, chocolates, etc. You should avoid all commercially processed varieties of these as they most likely contain hydrogenated oils. Make your own healthy desserts with good quality, fair-trade chocolate, fruits, nuts, and other raw ingredients or bake with real organic butter, organic sugar, and whole grain flours.

*Don’t forget to “drink healthy”, too: I covered that topic here :)

What are your thoughts on eating a balanced diet? As always, I would love to hear if you are “in” to this week’s One Simple Change.